Antennagate Addendum

A few follow-up points from yesterday’s “Antennagate Bottom Line”:

Regarding the Delta in Dropped Calls Between iPhone 4 and 3GS

One theory to explain this would be that the iPhone 4 antenna is simply worse than the 3GS’s antenna, perhaps even only because of skin coming into contact with the infamous spot.

Jobs’s “pet theory” is that iPhone 3GS owners were far more likely to have a case than 4 owners, which, interestingly, implies that even the iPhone 3GS gets better reception when in a case. (I asked about this during the tour of their antenna labs; the answer I got was “We don’t know.”)

Here’s another one, though, suggested by at least a dozen DF readers so far. Quoting from one such email:

In Antennagate Bottom Line, you mention the comparison of numbers of dropped calls, but I argue that this is not the right metric. What one needs to know is if the iPhone4 drops a call that would not be dropped by a 3GS. If the additional drops are in areas that the 3GS would have never connected in the first place, then the statistic isn’t telling us what everyone claims it is. All that would mean is that there is a large drop rate in regions that were previously regarded as dead zones. That’s an improvement, not a regression.

I’ll go out and acknowledge that this line of thinking is arguing that the iPhone 4’s higher dropped call rate is a good thing, which, on its face, sounds nutty. But is it outlandish? There are widespread reports — none better than Anandtech’s — that the iPhone 4 gets usable reception in areas where previous iPhones got none. Those may well comprise many of the extra dropped calls.

It’s also only fair to point out that I’ve also gotten many emails from DF readers who say they drop more calls with their iPhone 4 than their previous iPhones, from the same locations. I’ve gotten more such emails from readers claiming the iPhone 4 gets better reception, but for some, it’s worse. One thing I’d feel safe betting on: the extra dropped calls from the iPhone 4 are not evenly distributed among all iPhone 4 users. Some are getting a lot, and most are getting very few.

Regarding Apple’s Field Testing of the Antenna

Over the last few weeks I’ve probably gotten at least 200 emails posing the following theory:

We know from the Gizmodo stolen iPhone that the prototypes were disguised in cases when outside Apple’s campus. Maybe that’s why Apple missed this flaw in the antenna: they never noticed it on campus because they have a strong AT&T signal, and never noticed it off campus because the iPhones were always inside cases, and cases mitigate the skin-touching-the-spot problem.

That’s just not plausible.

For one thing, the strength of the AT&T coverage on Apple’s campus has no bearing on the testing they perform in their lab. There is no signal from AT&T inside those anechoic chambers. There is no signal from any external wireless source in those chambers. That’s the point of them. The way the chambers work is that they create their own little mini network inside the chamber. They run tests where they create strong signals, weak signals, and everything in between. They also run tests with people holding the phones being tested.

For another, they do test antennas in the field off-campus with no case. They do so using a fleet of about a dozen mobile testing labs. These are vans — more like small buses, maybe — which contain a slew of testing and measurement equipment.

The iPhone Gizmodo obtained was, in Apple’s internal lingo, a Design Verification Test (DVT) unit. These are one step below production units. My understanding is that when DVT units are deemed ready to go, the factories start churning them out as actual production units. Those DVT field tests are the final tests, certainly not the only tests. During the tour of Apple’s labs, Ruben Caballero — Apple’s senior antenna engineer, who led the tour — said the iPhone 4 antenna design had been in testing for two years.

Lastly, here’s what Steve Jobs said during the press conference:

Again you have to build these rooms, because if you don’t shield what you’re testing from all the outside interference, you don’t get accurate tests. And you can’t put your equipment in the room either. The equipment’s all got to be remoted outside the room. Now this is a state of the art antenna test facility. We have 17 anechoic chambers. These things are not cheap. We have invested over $100 million in antenna testing facilities over the past 5 years. We have 18 PhD scientists and engineers on our staff.

And so the iPhone antenna went through all of this. We tested it. We knew that if you gripped it in a certain way, the bars are going to go down a little bit, just like every smartphone. We didn’t think it’d be a big problem, because every smartphone has this issue.

Honestly, I thought the entire point of the lab tour was to reinforce this point: the iPhone 4 antenna is behaving exactly as Apple expected it would.

Laying It All on the Line

I posited yesterday that Jobs’s peevishness while announcing the free case giveaway had to do with the profits Apple is going to lose, which I estimated conservatively at $100 million. (On the analyst conference call yesterday afternoon, Apple estimated the cost at $175 million.) What I didn’t write about was whether I thought this was a good idea or not. I say yes.

Here’s the thing. Early last week this antenna story was spinning out of control. Letterman made a Top Ten list about it. Consumer Reports was posting updates every day, each getting a lot of traffic. CNN.com had a front page story stating that iPhone 4 owners could “fix” their phones with strips of duct tape.

It’s possible that if Apple had done nothing, the story would have died by now, perhaps drowned out by Apple’s spectacular quarterly results announced yesterday. I think they decided it wasn’t worth the chance — that if they did nothing, the fire might have gotten worse rather than died out.

And I think they decided, wisely, that if they were going to hit back in response to the story, they should hit back with everything they had. No use dribbling out responses one at a time. So: a live press conference, not just an open letter from Steve Jobs; a new section on Apple’s website specifically explaining Apple’s argument, and revealing their heretofore secret antenna testing facility; and, yes, free cases, for iPhone 4 users who are having signal problems that go away when the phone is encased.

In short: they weren’t going to take any chances. Except they did take a chance, insofar as Jobs mixed in a second message: media criticism. The message Apple needed to make was about the antenna (yes it has a weak spot, but it’s a worthwhile trade-off and it isn’t resulting in product returns, support calls to AppleCare, or a spectacular number of increased dropped calls) and about their concern for customers (we want them to be happy, so we’re waiving the restocking fee on returns and we’re giving a free case to any iPhone 4 user who wants one).

The extra message Jobs delivered was to the media: that they botched this story, that coverage was “so overblown it’s incredible”. Surely that’s what Jobs actually believes, and I think it’s the truth. I don’t think it was a good idea for Apple to make that case at the event, though. If the Antennagate PR problem was so dangerous that it warranted a significant response from Apple — and I think it did — then it was dangerous enough that it shouldn’t have been mixed with a message that might further antagonize the media — the very media whom Apple was clearly hoping would spread the facts Apple had presented regarding the antenna and its concern for customer satisfaction. It doesn’t matter whether Jobs was right; it distracted from the core message, which was all about dissipating the meme that the iPhone 4 antenna is severely flawed.

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